Philae prepares for historic comet landing



The European Space Agency will this weekend brief journalists and the public on the 12 November attempt to put the Philae lander on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Despite it's simple format, it is actually very good at explaining the challenges faced by Rosetta, the spacecraft that chased the comet through space for 10 years before catching up with it in August.

It's been a remarkable mission so far, not least the extraordinary pictures that have been sent back of the comet as it heats on approach to the Sun. Our previous coverage can be found in a feature explaining the mission here, and updates here, here, here, and here

Landing Philae is going to produce some of the toughest challenges of the mission. As the video explains, the irregular shape of the comet – which was completely unexpected – will make the task harder.

The latest ESA pictures of the landing site – named "Agilkia" after an island in the Nile following a public competition – can be seen in the picture below in the top centre, close to the horizon in this viewing angle.

The large depression that characterises the smaller lobe of the comet can be seen in the right-hand side at top right, while parts of the larger lobe can be seen in the lower half, with the still unseen portion of the comet again cast in dramatic shadow.

Image showing the proposed landing site on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
NASA

The landing comes as the comet shows a gradual, but clear, increase in activity, as can be seen in the latest images provided by the OSIRIS team, below.

There has been an increase in activity, as can be seen in the latest images from Rosetta
NASA

While images obtained a few months ago showed distinct jets of dust leaving the comet, these were limited to the ‘neck’ region. More recently, images obtained by Rosetta’s scientific imaging system, OSIRIS, show that dust is being emitted along almost the whole body of the comet. Jets have also been detected on the smaller lobe of the comet.

“At this point, we believe that a large fraction of the illuminated comet’s surface is displaying some level of activity,” says OSIRIS scientist Jean-Baptiste Vincent from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany.

From these images, the team wants to derive a better understanding of the evolution of cometary activity and the physical processes driving it.

Comet 67P/C-G is currently about 470 million kilometres from the Sun. Scientists expect a comet’s activity to pick-up noticeably once it comes to within 300 million kilometres of the Sun in late March 2015.

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